Family-Based Visa FAQ

How many categories of family-based immigration are there?
What is unlimited family-based immigration?
What is limited family-based immigration?
What petition must be filed for a family-based immigration visa?
What happens if a visa is declared ineligible? Is a waiver possible?
What documents are required for a visa application?
What is an affidavit of support?
Who is eligible to be a sponsor?
Are medical examinations required for the immigrant visa?
Are there limitations to the number of immigrant visas?
Once a visa is applied for, is it guaranteed that it will be issued?

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Q: How many categories of family-based immigration are there?
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A: The Immigration and Nationality Act allows for the immigration of foreigners to the United States based on relationship to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. Family-based immigration falls under two basic categories: unlimited and limited.

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Q: What is "unlimited family-based immigration"?
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A: For immediate relatives of U.S. citizens ("IR"): The spouse, widow(er) and unmarried children under 21 of a U.S. citizen, and the parent of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or older are eligible for immigration.
For returning residents ("SB"): Immigrants who lived in the United States previously as lawful permanent residents and are returning to live in the U.S. after a temporary visit of more than one year abroad are eligible.

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Q: What is limited family-based immigration?
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A: For Family First Preference ("F1"): Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their children, if any, are eligible.
For Family Second Preference ("F2"): Spouses, minor children and unmarried sons and daughters (over age 20) of lawful permanent residents are eligible. At least seventy-seven percent of all visas available for this category will go to the spouses and children. The remainder will be allocated to unmarried sons and daughters.
For Family Third Preference ("F3"): Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and children are eligible.
For Family Fourth Preference ("F4"): Brothers and sisters of United States citizens, and their spouses and children (provided the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age) are eligible.

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Q: What petition must be filed for a family-based immigration visa?
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A: Relatives of intending immigrants who plan to base their immigrant visa applications on family relationship must obtain a Form I-130, Immigrant Petition for Relative, from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (previously INS). The petitioning U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident must submit the Form I-130 to the Bureau office. Forms and instructions are available from the Bureau. Once the Bureau approves the petition, they will send the petitioner a notice of approval, Form I-797. The Bureau will also forward the approved petition to the Immigrant Visa Processing Center, which will contact the intending immigrant with further information.

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Q: What happens if a visa is declared ineligible? Is a waiver possible?
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A: The immigration laws of the United States prohibit the issuance of a visa to certain applicants. Examples of applicants who must be refused visas are those who:

  • Have a communicable disease such as tuberculosis
  • Have a dangerous physical or mental disorder, or are drug addicts
  • Have committed serious criminal acts
  • Are terrorists, subversives, members of a totalitarian party, or former Nazi war criminals
  • Have used illegal means to enter the United States
  • Are ineligible for citizenship.
  • Some former exchange visitors must live abroad two years. Physicians who intend to practice medicine must pass a qualifying exam before receiving immigrant visas.

The consular officer will advise ineligible applicants if the law provides for some form of waiver.

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Q: What documents are required for a visa application?
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A: The petitioner/sponsor must provide an Affidavit of Support, Form I-864. All applicants must submit certain personal documents such as passports, birth certificates, police certificates, and other civil documents. The consular officer will inform visa applicants of the documents needed as their applications are processed.

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Q: What is an affidavit of support?
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A: If you are bringing a relative to live permanently in the United States, you must accept legal responsibility for financially supporting this family member. You accept this responsibility and become your relative's sponsor by completing and signing a document called an affidavit of support. This legally enforceable responsibility lasts until your relative becomes a U.S. citizen or can be credited with 40 quarters of work (usually 10 years.) Exceptions to the requirement of an affidavit of support include:

  • Persons whom the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (previously INS) has approved as self-petitioning widows or widowers or battered spouses and children are exempt from this requirement. (These individuals file a Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (previously INS) Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er) or Special Immigrant.
  • Relatives who enter as refugees or asylees
  • The alien already has, or can be credited with, 40 quarters of coverage under the Social Security Act; or
  • The alien will automatically acquire citizenship under section 320 of the Act, as amended by the Child Citizenship Act of 2000

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Q: Who is eligible to be a sponsor?
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A: To be a sponsor of an immigrant relative, you must be at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident. You must have a domicile in the United States or a territory or possession of the United States. Usually, this requirement means you must actually live in the United States, or a territory or possession, in order to be a sponsor. If you live abroad, you may still be eligible to be a sponsor if you can show that your residence abroad is temporary, so that you still have your domicile in the United States.
You also must meet certain income requirements. You must show that your household income is equal to or higher than 125 percent of the U.S. poverty level for your household size. Your household size includes you, your dependents, any relatives living with you and the immigrants you are sponsoring. For example, if you have a spouse and two children and you want to sponsor your brother and his wife, you must prove that your household income is equal to or higher than 125 percent of the U.S. poverty level for a family of six, or $29,612. You must also include in your household size any immigrants you have previously sponsored under this part of the law. For example, if you had previously sponsored your parents and your sister, your household size would be nine persons and you would need a household income of $40,937 ($37,162 + $3,775).
If you, the sponsor, are on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States, and the immigrant you are sponsoring is your spouse or child, your income only needs to equal 100 percent of the U.S. poverty level for your family size.

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Q: Are medical examinations required for the immigrant visa?
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A: Before the issuance of an immigrant visa, every applicant, regardless of age, must undergo a medical examination. The consular officer chooses the doctor to perform the examination. The applicant must pay the costs for such examinations, in addition to the visa fees.

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Q: Are there limitations to the number of immigrant visas?
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A: Yes. Whenever there are more qualified applicants for a category than there are available numbers, the category will be considered oversubscribed, and immigrant visas will be issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed until the numerical limit for the category is reached. The filing date of a petition becomes the applicant's priority date. Immigrant visas can't be issued until an applicant's priority date is reached. In certain heavily oversubscribed categories, there may be a waiting period of several years before a priority date is reached. Check the Visa Bulletin, http://travel.state.gov/visa_bulletin.html, for the latest priority dates.

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Q: Once a visa is applied for, is it guaranteed that it will be issued?
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A: Since no advance assurances can be given that a visa will be issued, applicants are advised not to make any final travel arrangements, not to dispose of their property, and not to give up their jobs until visas have been issued to them. An immigrant visa can be valid for six months from the date of issuance.
With few exceptions, a person born in the United States has a claim to U.S. citizenship. Persons born in countries other than the U.S. may have a claim, under United States law, to U.S. nationality if:

  • Either parent was born or naturalized in the U.S., or
  • Either parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of applicant's birth
  • Any applicant believing he or she may have a claim to U.S. citizenship should not apply for a visa until the consular office has determined his or her citizenship.

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Information courtesy of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (previously INS).



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